The incredible true story of Didier Pironi, the Formula One World champion that could have been.
As the scarlet racing car hurtled through the air on a dark, soulless morning, its driver, startled to glimpse the tops of pine trees which abounded around the race track, knew in an instant that he was in very grave danger. Those few seconds would be etched deep into the pilot’s mind for the rest of his days. A red missile, the car speared into the skies at over 170 mph. The pilot closed his eyes and waited for the end.
August 1982 and Formula One World Championship leader Didier Pironi was putting his Ferrari through its paces on a grim German morning, one of only a few cars to venture out of the pits that morning. Most drivers had taken one look at the circuit and scurried off to the sanctuary of garages and team motor homes. Not so Pironi. The Ferrari pilot steered his mount out onto the treacherous circuit without so much as a moment’s hesitation. The skies around Hockenheim darkened.
The car felt good on the slippery circuit, very good. Soon the Ferrari was four, five seconds faster than anyone else. The wet Goodyear tyres bonded the car to the track. Didier opened the throttle. The whine of the Ferrari’s 650 bhp V6 turbocharged engine reverberated around the circuit, breaking through the eerie stillness of the morning.
The French driver was revelling in the feedback from the Harvey Postlethwaite-designed 126C2 as he skimmed around the sodden German circuit. Didier felt good, invincible almost. The Ferrari, now invisible amid a thick curtain of spray, headed confidently out into Hockenheim’s forest section, a fast, sweeping, ghostly couple of miles which snake away through dense pine forests.
Nowhere to go
Didier flicked the car into the south straight. Ahead was a huge ball of spray containing the Williams car driven by Derek Daly. Approaching 170 mph Pironi was instantly upon the Wiliams, its Irish driver duly moving off the racing line to allow the Ferrari past. At least that’s how the situation looked from inside the Ferrari cockpit. But there was another car out there hidden in that ball of spray, unseen by Didier. Directly in front of Daly’s car was the Renault of Alain Prost. The Williams moved off the racing line. Trusting in himself and his God and without even the slightest lift off the throttle, Didier disappeared into the spray…
Summer 1982 and everything was coming together for Didier, professionally at least. The angelic looking Frenchman was riding a crest of a wave having recently assumed leadership of both the Ferrari team and the world championship. Didier’s ambition to become France’s first F1 World Champion was tantalisingly within reach.
Yes, conditions out on the Hockenheim track were atrocious – rain in this part of the world can reach biblical proportions; and yes, Didier had taken pole position the previous day with a scorching lap of 1’47.947 - almost a second faster than his nearest challenger. The race victory seemed a formality. Why take such risks? Pironi they muttered, was crazy, one or two even suggested he had a death wish. Indeed colleagues and people who knew the French driver would readily attest to a level of bravery which bordered on the abnormal. “Didier had very big…huge balls,” said former team-mate Jacques Laffite choosing his words very carefully. “He was a very good guy.”
The impact was as sudden as it was violent. In the cockpit of his yellow and black Renault Alain Prost, caught between concern for his colleague and the desire for self-preservation, watched in horror as the Ferrari catapulted over his own cockpit. “Pironi’s car went straight on into the air, almost thirty metres up. I prayed I would stop, because I had no brakes,” recalled Prost, who had been tiptoeing around the circuit minding his own business when the Ferrari had ploughed into the back of his car. The events of that day would haunt Alain throughout his career. “Every time I drive on a wet track, I look in my rear view mirror and see the Ferrari of Didier flying.”
“All you could see of cars ahead were great balls of spray,” said a shaken Derek Daly later. It had all been a tragic misunderstanding, an accident waiting to happen. Hidden within that ball of spray, Prost’s Renault had materialised out of nowhere like a ghostly spectre. Didier had not stood a chance.
Public enemy number one
Pironi? A cold fish! A calculating, unemotional man they said, determined to do whatever it took to become world champion, even cheat his own team-mate of a race victory. At least that’s how the largely pro-Villeneuve press lead by the French Canadian’s cheerleader Nigel Roebuck had reported events at the San Marino Grand Prix back in April. Not since Judas Iscariot had a man been so vilified. Didier shrugged off the criticism. As far as he was concerned he’d been in a race.
Yet the press, with Roebuck at their helm, were baying for blood. Significantly, in the aftermath of the affair and with huge pressure to cast Didier out, Ferrari management remained equivocal. Villeneuve meanwhile raged and ranted. Il Commendatore - the great Enzo Ferrari himself - though ostensibly sympathising with Gilles, pointedly refused to castigate his French team-mate. But the damage had been done. Didier became public enemy number one.
Piquet comes to his aid
Like a tumbling Olympic gymnast, the Ferrari flipped over several times, leaving a trail of mechanical debris in its wake. The car finally came to rest two hundred metres down the road with one final, sickening smash onto its nose cone. The front end disintegrated on impact. It could have been made of paper machier for the protection it afforded the luckless Pironi. “An electric chair,” said Nelson Piquet in a less than subtle reference to the 126C2’s structural frailties. Ferrari didn’t like that. But Nelson had been the first on the scene, leaping out from the cockpit of his Brabham to go to the aid of his stricken colleague.
Far from the ice cold machine perpetuated by certain factions of the media, other people would remember Didier as a softly spoken young man of impeccable manners and behaviour. Yes, there was family money and Didier carried with him an almost palpable air of Parisien sophistication and style, but those who knew him well would talk fondly of a shy, sensitive man. His personal life would also provide endless speculation for the gossip columns right until the very end.
“Get me out of here! Get me out!” Aghast Nelson Piquet surveyed the carnage before him. “Get me out!” Didier’s shrill cries pierced the gloom. Where to even begin? On removing Didier’s helmet the reigning world champion almost passed out. The Frenchman’s face was unrecognisable, bloodied and contorted with agony. On seeing the state of his shattered legs the Brazilian promptly vomited and had to be escorted away by track marshalls.
Even the elements themselves seemed indifferent to the Frenchman’s plight, whose life now lay dangling by a thread. The rain intensified, bucketing down from a steely grey sky.
Don’t let them take my legs!
Pironi's plea to Professor Sid Watkins following crash
Thankfully the emergency services were quickly on the scene. “Don’t let them take my legs off!” screamed Didier to F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins as he drifted in and out of consciousness. At this stage there was a real risk of amputation. Didier’s legs had both been broken, smashed to pieces, his arm was broken and his ankle was as good as crushed. “I give you my word, they won’t touch your legs,” shouted the professor having stabilised the hysterical driver. While sedating Pironi, Watkins quickly surveyed the damage. It didn’t look good. But true to his word, The Prof. ensured the circuit doctors did not carry out their threat of immediate amputation. It would take thirty agonising minutes to free the driver.
A legendary career ended in a matter of seconds - But let's look at how it all began
Didier’s once promising career ended right there and then in the mangled remains of his Ferrari on that hateful August day.
As a fledgling F1 driver Didier had spectacularly announced himself as a man with a future following a heroic victory in the 1978 Le Mans 24 hour-race. It had been boys’ own stuff. He’d almost won the race single-handedly when his co-driver - veteran Jean-Pierre Jassaud - suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, had been unable to take over the car for the final stint. Didier, also suffering from exhaustion, had been obliged to soldier on, in effect putting in a double shift while fending off determined attacks from the mighty Porsche team. Exhausted and dehydrated, at race end Pironi had to be lifted from the cockpit of the triumphant Renault Alpine by a couple of gendarmes. There then followed some anxious minutes as the medical team administered oxygen. Didier eventually stumbled onto the victory podium.
Huge crowds lined the Champs Elysees as the victors returned back to Paris. President Giscard D’Estaing was there to greet Pironi and Jassaud with all the pomp and ceremony reserved for war heroes. Only a few days later France’s latest sporting hero would have his driving licence suspended for 15 days. The offence? Speeding… His attentions now turned to the F1 world crown.
Reliving the crash
Didier would later relive every second of the horrific crash over and over again. He would remember launching over the Renault, remember the pine trees and the foreboding sense of death. He would remember too how his legs started to “seriously” hurt once in the emergency helicopter en route to hospital in nearby Heidelberg. It just so happened the hospital was Germany’s leading centre for road traffic accidents. It was a small piece of fortune on an otherwise hellish day.
The blue and white Ligier car was charging through the field at Brands Hatch, smashing the lap record over and over again. From behind a trademark pair of black sunglasses, the old man snorted his approval. Here was a driver with panache, a driver with swagger and an air of self-assurance that reminded the old man of champions past. Enzo Ferrari was watching the 1980 F1 season as usual on the small portable television in his office. He turned to his assistants: “I want Pironi!” And what Mr Ferrari wanted he invariably got.
They were a nightmarish two weeks, a never-ending cycle of anaesthetics, operations and assessments. The Heidelberg medical team performed miracles, painstakingly rebuilding his shattered legs in a series of epic operations that would last for as much as six hours at a time. Eventually Didier would be transferred to Paris under the care of Dr Letournel, the same surgeon who had dealt with the aftermath of the Jabouille and Depaillier accidents, both of whom had suffered serious leg injuries. Over the years another forty operations would follow.
There would be long, seemingly endless weeks, months spent lying in his hospital bed. Sometimes he would dream of returning to Grand Prix racing. Enzo Ferrari’s promise that a Ferrari berth would be his upon his return would cheer him up during intense periods of despair. Every day he would wake to see a small trophy on his bedside table, a small token which had been sent by Mr Ferrari himself. “Didier Pironi – the true 1982 World Champion,” read the inscription.
'The true 1982 World Champion'
One year after his accident he re-appeared, hobbling unsteadily on crutches, 12 months of agony were deeply etched into his face despite his efforts to play down his suffering. The circuit he chose to make his return as an F1 spectator? Hockenheim…
The real obstacle to a return to racing, as Didier would explain to the many people who enquired, was a right ankle that could not possibly withstand the rigours of a two hour Grand Prix race. And over time he gradually came to accept that perhaps his Formula One career – at least as a frontrunner - was over. As a teenager he had roared around the southern Paris suburbs risking life and limb on a series of motorbikes and then cars. His brief stint in F1 had provided even greater thrills as well as fame and fortune. Didier looked around for a new way to get his kicks. And then Colibri came into his life.
“He was a very talented driver with lots of ambition. I think he felt after the Hockenheim accident powerboating was the next best thing,” said Guy Ligier founder of the team that bore his name. Boats had always been a part of Didier’s life and therefore it was perhaps inevitable that his attention would turn to the physically less demanding, though just as thrilling and potentially even more dangerous sport of powerboat racing. “Didier loved the atmosphere, the environment, the thrill, the excitement,” remembered friend and former Ferrari team-mate Patrick Tambay. “He loved the danger, the stress, the feeling of being able to control the anxieties that come with high-level competition.”
Colibri or ‘Humming bird’ was a 40 foot beast of a boat. A ground-breaking carbon fibre vessel designed for an assault on the 1987 Offshore World Powerboat Championship. Four cracked ribs from an accident in Spain though would testify to Didier just how dangerous this new sport could be. Nevertheless along with his two man crew – Claude Guenard and Bernard Giroux, Didier took victory in Norway and was genuinely touched to receive a congratulatory message from his old boss Enzo Ferrari. He hadn’t been totally forgotten by F1. Thus he headed towards the next round at The Isle of Wight in the UK brimming with confidence.
A comeback in the making
There had been occasional forays back into an F1 cockpit. During 1986 with the strength returning to his lower body, Didier had undertaken a serious of ‘secret’ tests for the AGS team and for his old friends at Ligier, where he had got close to Rene Arnoux’s benchmark times. There was also an intriguing though distant prospect of a seat at Mclaren in 1987 alongside Prost. His fellow countryman though was rumoured not to be keen on the idea…
As Didier prepared for the Isle of Wight race on yet another gloomy August weekend, he had in fact been about to finalise a deal for an F1 return in 1988 with the Larousse team run by his old friend ex-Renault chief Gerard Larousse. And with his partner Catherine pregnant with twins, there was plenty for Didier to look forward to that Summer and beyond.
A tragic end to a tragic story
Sunday 23rd August was a dull, lifeless day on the English Channel. Like that fateful day at Hockenheim five years earlier the skies were overcast. And like ’82, Summer seemed to have deserted. Preparing for the race at Poole harbour Bernard Guenard had felt uneasy. Although he couldn’t explain why, the ex-Ligier mechanic didn’t feel right about the race and told friends as much. There was something in the air, something ominous.
But the show had to go on. Two laps into the 178 mile race around the island, Colibri was challenging the Italian boat for the lead. It just so happened that making its way from Southampton to Belfast that afternoon was a 100 metre long oil tanker, the Esso Avon. Fate had decreed that the tanker would be in the English Channel that particular day at that precise hour. Two hundred yards off the Needles Lighthouse while challenging for the lead at a turning point, Colibri initially skated over the wash sent out from the nearby tanker. Didier’s fellow crew members swallowed hard. Colibri was travelling at around 100mph and what is more Didier showed no sign of throttling back as the boat was faced with yet more wash from the tanker.
Witnesses said the boat corkscrewed high into the air, slamming upside down into the icy waters which would have effectively acted like concrete at such high speeds. RAF rescue teams were immediately despatched from the mainland, but in truth nobody held out much hope for the occupants of the boat such had been the violence of the crash. “It comes down to luck,” said a Solent coastguard, “The others in the race got across the wake, but Didier’s boat hit it square on.”
The three men were mercifully killed instantly. Didier’s cause of death was officially recorded as ‘drowning following a serious head injury.’ France wept for a sporting hero. “I join the world in mourning these sportsmen,” said French president Jacques Chirac.
Only days before the tragedy at The Isle of Wight, Catherine had informed Didier that after three years of trying and failure upon failure of IVF treatment, he was finally going to become a father. Didier was delighted. He would rest his head upon Catherine’s stomach, and addressing the unborn twins, whisper gently “How are my babies today?” Twin boys would enter the world just months after their father’s untimely exit.
A brief, yet intense existence
Didier Pironi’s life had been brief yet intense. Old age it seemed had never had the slightest intention of adding him to its ranks. August, the holiday month, a time for enjoyment, relaxation and rejuvenation a time for picnics on beaches and a time for new plans. Not so for Didier, for whom August truly was the cruellest of months.